Cheltenham: Mad could push ‘big two’ to the Max
They have taken turns to submit meekly while the other claims the crown, so a vintage race would seem guaranteed today if both Master Minded and Big Zeb finally square up like they mean it.
Between them, after all, they have won the last three runnings of the Sportingbet Queen Mother Champion Chase, and the bookmakers believe they will once again dominate. It is possible, however, that this field will prove deeper than those weakened by their respective failures over the past two years.
Some who rode against him that day will tell you that Master Minded's performance in 2008 was the most devastating by any steeplechaser of recent times. By that reckoning, the mighty Kauto Star is not even the best horse owned by Clive Smith, never mind the best since Arkle.
As a result, of course, Master Minded tends to be judged against a fairly unsparing standard, and you will hear it said that he has not always exuded quite the same aura since.
He followed up readily enough in 2009 — Big Zeb was just organising a challenge when falling two out — but was evidently not himself when only fourth at odds-on last year. Big Zeb, having gone with gusto throughout, took full advantage.
Like so many horses trained by Paul Nicholls, Master Minded was then given a wind operation and he produced an exuberant exhibition on his return at Ascot in November.
He out-classed his rivals here in December, but could only scramble home from Somersby back at Ascot last time. His jockey then, Tony McCoy, reproached himself for committing too soon that day, and Nicholls certainly seems confident, identifying Master Minded as his best chance all week.
Big Zeb also failed to show authority in his trial, collared by Golden Silver after going clear at Punchestown, but there was a similar sense that the result should not be taken too literally.
He idled in front in testing ground, and conditions will be very different today. Of the two, indeed, Master Minded will probably prove less at home with drying conditions.
Of the pair who discomfited the two big guns last time out, Golden Silver has disappointed on both previous visits here, while Somersby looks desperate for a step up in trip. Woolcombe Folly, meanwhile, is on the upgrade but looks poor value.
The former is admittedly prone to the odd tame run, while the latter needs to regroup after an unfulfilling campaign. At 33-1, however, it may be worth taking an each-way chance with Mad Max (3.20).
Mad was trounced 20 lengths behind Master Minded and Somersby at Ascot but he has a long history of breathing problems and his trainer has now taken radical action, getting his windpipe “tubed”.
Mad Max was a big price in the novice championship last year but was still tanking in the lead when brought to a shuddering halt by a mistake two out.
He then beat Somersby by nine lengths at Aintree, prompting most people to conclude that the runner-up was not quite at his best.
But the fact is that Mad Max has repeatedly hinted at an engine commensurate with his intimidating physique. That engine can misfire and there is an obvious risk of him blowing out altogether. If the mechanics have sorted him out he could end up looking a huge price.
Another horse with the talent to overcome an unpromising preparation is Mikael d'Haguenet, but it requires too great a leap of faith for him to come good over fences in a race as demanding as the RSA Chase.
So while Time For Rupert (2.40) would ideally have had another run, he has been impeccable in the two chases he has contested, both round here, and is the class act. However they fare with Mikael d'Haguenet, Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh have a novice going places in another discipline in So Young.
There is much excitement in Ireland about his preparation for the Neptune Investments Novices' Hurdle, but such experience as he has gained is all in undemanding company on soft ground, and his jumping will have to hold up against horses with runs on the board.
These include Oscars Well, more accomplished on form but potentially vulnerable in these quicker conditions, but the outstanding value is Megastar (2.05 nap). He, conversely, has been struggling in muddling races on mid-winter going, but ran a stormer in the bumper here last year and could make dramatic improvement now that he steps up in trip on spring ground.
Mullins has two interesting candidates for the Coral Cup — Ballyhaunis (4.00 next best) met a smart novice in a steadily-run race last time, but remains unexposed at this kind of trip on good ground.
By all accounts the Irish have also got one lined up for the Fred Winter in Plan A (4.40), and they will be very hard to stop in the opener, too.
But Jonjo O'Neill has a fine record in this and it is intriguing to see the progressive Aberdale (1.30) come here fresh from a winter off. Either way, the Weatherbys Champion Bumper is very much an Irish speciality, and Divine Rhapsody (5.30) has been given a nerveless 11-month preparation.